The day after the Paris attacks - "What We Were Doing in Our Part of Chicago"

The day after the Paris attacks - "What We Were Doing in Our Part of Chicago"
The Wrigley Building paying its respects. (photo credit: Brian Nguyen/Chicago Tribune)

Yesterday, a friend from high school forwarded to me a Facebook post by Anne Lamott in which she wrote about hope and bewilderment after the massacre in Paris. As beautiful as Anne's words were, I was most struck by a response written by a women named Melanie Sims Maxham.

In a small piece she called "What We Are Doing in Our Part of France," she shared how she spent Saturday visiting a Christmas market in her "small village in southern France." She recounted a day of deliberate mundanity in a long, dark shadow of horror. As of this writing 2,500 people have "liked" her comment that ended with these words:

"Because if we don't go to the market, buy a little lopsided star, laugh when the terrier gets his comeuppance, and eat our meal with gratitude, then the terrorists have truly won."

Inspired by Ms. Maxham's post, I would like to now share how my son and I spent Saturday the 14th of November, 2015 in Chicago, IL:

My son ("G") had a sleepover on Friday night. It was one long non-stop parade of Star Wars, Minecraft, Goosebumps, and Munchkin the Dog. I feared the expensive air mattress they were sleeping on might get punctured from all the roughousing with the dog.

Sure enough, by Saturday morning it had sprung an air leak but so what - because Paris.

That morning I watched the boys play for hours in that peaceful space that exists between them. It wasn’t my place to share with G’s playmate about the act of terror committed in the name of fundamentalism, rage, and hatred, so I just let them play Mario Brothers all morning. (They crushed it.) It broke my heart that they would soon learn the world is not as kind and loving as their young hearts.

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As I listened to them giggle, I wondered about the mothers of the dead assailants. How were they spending their first day in their New World? Did their children once giggle like the boys on my couch?

I cautiously poked my head into the Nation of Facebook, bracing myself against the predictable posturing from both sides of the political aisle - as if terrorism could ever be defeated by just the right policy, or a singular ideology, or even by the greatest military in the world. A million tanks couldn’t have stopped the grenades from flying from the hands of lost souls willing to blow themselves up to gain admiration from the mentally ill.

I did not watch the news on Saturday, but chose, instead, to believe that the brightest, most informed minds in the world are at this very minute collaborating and brainstorming in a united front against a threat that is in no way specific to the boundaries of Paris.

****

Breathe.

****

I announced to Mario and Luigi that for breakfast I could offer them cereal and power bars and orange juice and toast (oops, scratch the toast, the bread is old. My bad) so what does everyone want? And it turns out what they really wanted was pancakes but we made do.

I dropped my kid off at his Saturday morning theater class, drove his friend home, apologized to his mother for leaving his toothbrush and belt at my place, then drove home to steal away a couple of hours to myself while my son was in class.

At the stoplight on N. Clark St, I found myself thinking “Thank God it didn’t happen here,” and was quickly overcome with guilt about the selfishness behind my relief. Then just as quickly I recognized that mine was probably a natural, normal reaction. What the victims are going through right now is earth-shattering and I don’t want my earth shattered. The relief I experienced didn't mean I didn't care - or that my heart wasn't breaking.

And then for a moment, I got scared. Like really scared - the kind of scared I was on the morning of 9/11 as I was driving north on I-94 after the towers got hit and wet didn’t yet know if the attacks were over. For a couple of miles I lived in the possibility that there might be much more to come, and that life as I knew it could be over.

And when I was that scared on Clark St, I wondered if I would cut my own son’s fingers off, "Owen Meany" style, to keep him from serving in a war, some day. He would make such a horrible soldier, and I'm selfish. I suspected I could never go through with it, and that felt cowardly on my part. These are the things I thought before the light turned green, and the wave of fear passed.

On Saturday the 14th, I spent a couple of hours writing the best sentences that I could because it seemed more important than ever to do things that brought me joy.

I cleaned the fish tank, and got worried about one of the hermit crabs that hasn't seemed like himself, lately. (I didn't even know what to think about myself for feeling sadness about a hermit crab on November 14, 2015. It felt like the most right and the most wrong thing to experience that day.)

In the evening, my son and I went out to a super event with lots of people around, and I cried through half of it because I was still afraid, and then I cried some more because I didn't want to be afraid. I had trouble not imagining an attack breaking out around me like the one that happened hours earlier against people who were also out enjoying their lives. I decided that the fear was worth working through because I am choosing to be in this thing. I am a willing participant in my life, come what may.

*****

Tomorrow morning, I'm going to talk to G about Paris. It's not that he necessarily needs to know about it, but he does need to hear about it from me, first, and not from a kid on the playground.

I’m going to tell him that something awful happened in France, and unfortunately a lot of people got badly hurt - some were even killed.

I’m going to tell him that there are some bad, bad people in the world, but that there are way more good people than bad. (I’m going to stress how important that second part is.)

I’m going to tell him that sad things do happen out there in the world. But what happened in Paris doesn't happen very often and no one can really predict those things so there’s no use worrying that it will happen to him.

I’m going to tell him that it’s okay to be really sad that it happened – like really, really sad. A lot of people feel that way.

I’m going to tell him that some very smart people are working on the problem.

I’m going to let him know that if he has any questions, he can ask me and I will try to answer. He doesn't have to go through any of this alone.

*****

I partly owe that explanation to my high school friend, for when she reached out and offered Anne’s words of comfort I was struck by how we don’t need to be alone in our fear, or our disgust, or our confusion, or even our hope.

In fact, the web we create by linking our hearts together might keep us afloat and protect us from being dragged under by the undertow of hatred in the hearts of the murderous religious cult responsible for the darkness that was cast into the City of Light on Friday night..

So, what were you doing on Saturday the 14th?

(Our hearts are with you, Paris.)

*****

That's my piece, and that's my peace. Thank you for taking the time to read my silly words. It truly means the world to me. Carry on...

OSM

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